Teresa MacDonald, Director of Education
at The University of Kansas Natural History Museum
Teresa MacDonald (firstname.lastname@example.org)
is the Director of Education at the University of Kansas Natural
History Museum and Biodiversity Research Center, and an instructor
in the Museum Studies graduate program. She holds a Bachelors degree
in physical anthropology, and a Masters degree in vertebrate paleontology.
She has over twelve years experience in the field of science education
and public understanding of science. Her experience spans five countries
on three continents and includes work in museums, science centers,
schools and universities. MacDonald is the outreach director for
the EPSCoR-funded particle physics education project, Quarked!,
and is the Principle Investigator for the NSF-funded Understanding
the Tree of Life project.
“Frying Pickles and Flying Marshmallows” was one of
the news headlines inspired by our museum’s annual science
event, titled Playing With Your Food.1 Over six days,
more than 4,000 visitors explored science through demonstrations
and activities that all used food in some way–such as Cartesian
divers, gelatin optics and exploding cornstarch. During all of our
events, we offer a range of activities to serve a broad audience,
and try to incorporate some more challenging concepts or less familiar
science ideas into the visitor experience. During Playing With
Your Food, we used colored licorice inside napkin rings to
demonstrate the ‘tube within a tube’ body plan found
in most animals, talked about the biogeography of worms in North
America, and used Fruit by the Foot™ to illustrate protein folding.
We searched for images online that were created with protein modeling
software (cartoon images) and followed these to create a three-dimensional
model of the tertiary structure of the ovalbumin protein found in
eggs. A folded protein model was made using a thin wire frame wrapped
in Fruit by the Foot™. An unfolded, twisted mass of Fruit
by the Foot™ was used to represent the denatured egg protein.
These two models, along with a raw and cooked egg, were used to
teach visitors about: (1) what proteins are; (2) how they are made;
and (3) the different levels of protein structure.
Visitors are often familiar with some elements of science topics,
but can struggle with making connections between, or synthesizing,
different pieces of information. One misconception that I encounter
on a regular basis is that DNA is only found in blood, saliva, and
gonads because of the many references to crime scene investigations
and paternity suits in the popular media. Our events provide an
opportunity to make connections between new ideas and the concepts
familiar to visitors. We felt that visitors were likely to have
heard of proteins and that most would recognize eggs as being a
good source of protein, but that the majority of visitors would
not have a broader understanding of proteins, such as their varied
roles in the body, the relationship between DNA and proteins, or
the idea of protein folding.
The Fruit by the Foot™ protein model piqued visitors’
interest–they wanted to know what it was and why we would
make something like this. We typically began the discussion by asking
visitors about what they already knew about proteins and their related
knowledge or experiences–e.g., what they knew about DNA coding,
whether they had ever cooked eggs, eaten cheese or yoghurt. All
visitors, children and adults, had heard of proteins and the majority
suggested that “you should eat them to make you strong.”
Few had made any connections between DNA, amino acids, and proteins,
or were aware of protein folding. Protein folding was introduced
by looking at what happens to egg proteins when you “cook”
them–bonds break, proteins unfold, and new bonds form between
proteins to produce the familiar hard “egg white.” The
model helped to illustrate the secondary–specifically alpha
helices and beta pleated sheets–and tertiary structure of
proteins. This was then related to the importance of protein folding
in studying some human diseases.
Whenever possible, we try to link activities within and between
our events. Activities that were related to the protein demonstration
included: (1) extraction of DNA from strawberries; (2) DNA jewelry
that used colored beads and pipecleaners to create DNA strands of
triplet sequences that coded for letters of the alphabet rather
than amino acids; and (3) a Gummy Fish Genetics display which used
regular and mini-gummy fish to demonstrate simple Mendelian inheritance.
Future links could include antibodies and enzymes, and opportunities
for visitors to make their own models.
For more information about The University of Kansas Natural History
Museum and Biodiversity Research Center, please see www.nhm.ku.edu.
Tyson Pyle assisting visitors in making their own
Teresa MacDonald and Dawn Kirchner extracting DNA
from strawberries for visitors
Selecting a fish from the parent pool for
Gummy Fish Genetics.
- Frying pickles and flying marshmallows: museum says it’s
OK to be play with food. KU news release, March 7, 2007